How to read the MTA Subway map

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The NYC subway is the essential way to travel throughout all five boroughs, whether you live in the city or are just visiting. For those who are visiting NYC, the subway map may look intimidating, but it can be pretty simple with a few tips. Here are suggestions to take when you’re reading the subway map, along with subway tips as you travel through Brooklyn.

Where to get it
Ask any station agent working at an MTA subway entrance for a map and they will provide it for free. There are also large subway maps in every subway car (near one of the doors), in subway entrances, and on subway platforms.

Visit the MTA website for free digital maps and information.



The map key
Familiarize yourself with the subway map key, pictured in the upper righthand corner of the subway map. The key will help you distinguish between a local and express stop, what a subway transfer looks like, and other train lines you can transfer to at any particular station.

All lines are either local or express and are named by the station or area at the final stop of the train. The different subway lines are color and number coded, and you’ll see that marked clearly on the subway map.


Local vs. Express
Express trains make fewer stops and travel faster. They typically stop at high-traffic hubs, like the Atlantic Terminal station in Brooklyn. On the official subway map, every express stop is indicated by a white circle or white bar. If you see that white circle or bar, that means all trains — both express and local — will stop here.

Local trains make every stop along the line. Local stops are indicated by a black circle or black bar. So if your stop is indicated by that black circle or bar, you can only board a local train. An express train will not stop here, so don’t get on one!

During late night service (typically after 11:30 p.m. at night), express trains begin stopping on the local track. So if you’re traveling home late at night, you could either board a local or express train and it will make all the stops.

If you’re still confused, be sure to ask a station agent or a train conductor if the train is running local or express. Often times — but not always — when you’re boarding a train, an announcer will say if the train is running local or express.


Downtown & Brooklyn subway sign | via Wikipedia

Going to Brooklyn
The subway trains travel in two directions: uptown and downtown. If you’re coming from Manhattan, the Bronx is up and Brooklyn is down. That means Bronx-bound trains are always heading uptown and Brooklyn bound trains are always heading downtown. So if you’re traveling from Brooklyn into Manhattan, you’ll be taking the uptown Manhattan or Bronx train out of Brooklyn.


Getting to know the lines
The tangle of colored lines and the alphabet soup of letters and numbers can be hard to decipher, but it helps if you know a couple of rules.

Lines that have the same color often follow the same path in Midtown Manhattan (if they go there), and then branch out in different directions as they head out towards the outer boroughs. Some of them are local trains, and some express. Here are the major groups of lines, with a few helpful things to know about them:

Blue (A/C/E): In Midtown, these lines go up Eighth Avenue — the westernmost line. The A is the express train. Unlike the A and C trains, the E doesn’t go to Brooklyn. The A can take you all the way to JFK — but make sure you take the Far Rockaway branch!

Red (1/2/3): In Midtown, these lines go up Seventh Avenue. In Manhattan, the 2 and 3 are the express trains. The 1 train is the local and doesn’t go into Brooklyn. At Franklin Avenue, the 3 train branches north toward East New York and the 2 south through Flatbush.

Orange (B/D/F/M): In Midtown, these lines go up Sixth Avenue. In Manhattan, the F train is the local. After the Broadway-Lafayette station in Manhattan, the four lines go into Brooklyn in four different directions. The M follows the J and Z lines through Williamsburg and Bushwick. The B follows the Brighton Line through Downtown Brooklyn, Prospect Heights, Flatbush, and Midwood, ending at Brighton Beach. The F train stops in DUMBO, Downtown, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope, following the Culver line all the way to Coney Island. The D train goes through Downtown before following Fourth Avenue through Park Slope, Gowanus, and Sunset Park and the West End Line through Bensonhurst before ending at Coney Island. The B and D go over the Manhattan Bridge, giving you nice views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York skyline.

Yellow (N/R/Q): In Midtown, these lines go up Broadway, a diagonal route that offers a lot of connections to the other lines.  The Q is the express. If you’re heading to Brooklyn, you should only take the R train if you’re coming from Wall Street or Battery Park — it’s the slowest route to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, the N and R follow the D line down towards Coney Island and Bay Ridge, respectively. The Q follows the B line to Coney Island.

Dark Green (4/5/6):  In Midtown, these lines go up Park and Lexington Avenues — the easternmost line. The 6 is the local train and does not go into Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, the 4 serves as an express for the 3 line, and the 5 as an express for the 2 line.

Brown (J/Z): This line goes from the Wall Street area across the Williamsburg Bridge into North Brooklyn, through Williamsburg and Bushwick before veering north into Queens and Jamaica Center. Generally, the Z is the express and the J is the local… but check the map because this line has some crazy rules.

Light Green (G): As discussed in Exploring Brooklyn by the G train, the G is a vital link between Brooklyn and Queens. It follows the F from Church Avenue to Bergen Street, before going north through Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It ends at Court Square in Queens.



Sometimes you will need to take two trains to get to your destination, and that calls for a subway transfer. On the map, the black or white “bars” indicate that you can catch trains from multiple lines at that particular station.

The subway map will also tell you what subway lines you can catch at subway stations that allow a transfer. Just follow one subway line, and you’ll notice that when more than one train line runs on that particular route, several letters or numbers are listed along the route.


atlantic-av-terminal-lirr-brooklyn-subwayAtlantic Terminal | Benjamin Kabak via Flickr

For example, look at the Atlantic Av-Barlcays Ctr subway stop. The map indicates that many different subway lines arrive here–the 2/3, 4/5, B/D, N/Q/R lines are all available at this one station.


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